Over the years, we’ve been more than just a little interested in the work of The Criterion Collection. Their mission since 1984, has simply been “gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” Their focus has been on important films, both classic and contemporary. And they are so good at it that we have dedicated a regular feature to it, this thing known as Criterion Files. A column that I’m hijacking this week because I wanted to talk about a few things. Notably a slew of recent Blu-ray releases, perfect examples of the ongoing work that Criterion is doing to preserve, highlight, celebrate and archive some of the most significant accomplishments in film history. Today we take a look at some of these things that Criterion does very well, in the context of their recent Blu-ray release. All of these are available in stores now and are certainly recommended. All that’s left is to talk about why.
One of my own personal loves about the ever-growing Criterion shelves within my Blu-ray collection is the notion that this collection features a great number of films that may otherwise be lost in time had it not been for a few crazy lovers and their intense focus on keeping these accomplishments up to date. One example is Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (8.28), heralded as one of the last great films of the silent era. It existed in that time when the big craze was talkies, and much of Hollywood was already adding sound to their pictures. It’s wildly evident in the three scenes of dialogue that Fejos resisted the movement as long as possible, but was aware. Like Scorsese using 3D some years later, Fejos showed ambition with the sound, the use of color tinting for added effects and an overly active camera for the period. Buried over the years, Lonesome had to be restored without a script from an original nitrate print found by a French society. It’s a charming film and even more impressive, an accomplishment that stands as evidence of a great period of transition for film. In their dedication to keeping this one on current media, Criterion also includes two other Fejos films, pulling together a more complete look at the filmmaker on one single disc.
Another three-for-one is The Samurai Trilogy (6.26), from director Hiroshi Inagaki. In the mid-1950s, Inagaki set out to film a vast, sweeping saga of a legendary swordsman. In the role of the swordsman, who is seen growing from unruly youth to enlightened warrior with plenty of romance and bloodshed in between, is the great Toshiro Mifune. The trilogy, which includes the Oscar-winning first entry Musashi Miyamoto, is said to do for Japanese history similar things that Gone with the Wind did for America and The South. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many essays about this trilogy that don’t mention Gone with the Wind at one point or another. To their credit, Criterion has masterfully restored these films and transferred them to high definition. They’ve even gone as far as re-translating the English subtitles to ensure the most accurate portrayal of what Inagaki was going for. It’s the kind of care that few studios have the time or money to place upon a re-release. This, like the Fejos film, isn’t the sort of film that you’d be able to just queue up on your Netflix Instant feed and watch. It would otherwise be lost in obscurity. Or in the case of The Samurai Trilogy, you can still track down the import VHS version. But the quality on that is questionable, at best.
Another good work of Criterion is the celebration of fresh, young voices and their breakout performances. Take for example filmmaker Andrew Haigh and his honest tale of gay romance, Weekend (8.21). Vibrantly shot, unfiltered and naturalistic, it tells the touching story of two British men and their struggle with the complex nature of modern gay living and the even more universal struggle of dealing with a one-night stand that turns into something more. Through the intimate lens of Haigh, fresh talent Tom Cullen and Chris New share on-screen chemistry that is as rare as it is beautiful. The edition released by Criterion shows this off with a sharp 1080p digital master, as clean a presentation as you may ever see thanks to the combination of a brilliantly shot film (by Ula Pontikos) and a carefully manicured transfer. Also included on the set are two short films from Haigh, evidence that he’s no one hit wonder, but a significant talent rising on the contemporary scene.
Of course, these emerging voices don’t have to be artists who have burst onto the scene only recently. Whit Stillman has been around for quite some time. His latest film, Damsels in Distress is one of the more talked about indie releases of the year, thanks to a darling performance from it girl Greta Gerwig. But before that, before The Last Days of Disco, Stillman hit the scene with Metropolitan (7.24), “a sparkling comedic chronicle of a young man’s romantic misadventures while trying to fit in to New York City’s debutante society.” (I can’t say it much better than that.) More simply, it’s a deftly written story about anxiety. And it looks better than most indie films from the early 90s, thanks to Criterion’s restoration. They’re not shy about the filmmakers they love, as we’ll explore in the next section, and Stillman is one voice that Criterion loves to present with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. He’s incredible wit is evident in all of his work, but not quite as much as it is with his breakout film from 1990.
Later in the 1990s, another filmmaker began showing us his edge. He would later go on to make films like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, but first Danny Boyle would deliver the dark, complex and frequently violent thriller, Shallow Grave (6.12). As Philip Kemp explains in the essay included with the Blu-ray release, early 90s British cinema was overwhelmingly safe, a generous mix of Austen and Dickens, period pieces that ruffled no feathers and took little quarter. Along came Boyle in ’94, ready to dispense with “the moral baggage that British films carry around all the time.” He did so with verve in Shallow Grave, creating a threesome (played by Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox) that fit together naturally. He once said that the script, from John Hodge, gave him inclinations of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. Both movies seem to have unique narrative force and a savory heartlessness. Buried among the extras is a brilliant feature, something I can’t say I’ve seen outside the intensely focused world of Criterion. A video diary of producer Andrew Macdonald and his brother Kevin Macdonald, shopping their screenplay at the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival. It’s part of the process rarely experienced by the end-user, and part of the reason why revisiting films in this manner can be so enlightening.
Celebrating The Auteur
As was mentioned above, Criterion loves their favorite directors. And like any film commenter or pundit, those favorites often get plenty of space in the collection. One such filmmaker is Wes Anderson, one of the most interesting and stylish modern voices, and perhaps one of the great contemporary auteurs. Criterion’s Anderson obsession knows little bounds, with the likes of his surreal debut Bottle Rocket, his beautifully crafted The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and his angsty breakout Rushmore all among the Collection. The Royal Tenenbaums (8.14) is also among the prestigous list of Anderson films presented in Criterion grade packaging. One family’s struggle to survive each other (and the antics of its insane patriarch) is one of Anderson’s more touching and heartfelt efforts, done up with all the idiosyncrasies and flairs of style for which he’s known. It’s also home to more than a few memorable performances from the likes of Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and the brothers Wilson. As with many of the Criterion’s more contemporary releases, the special features offer a grand walk through the entire production, from interviews with the principle talents to inserts of drawings by Eric Anderson. The Blu-ray, like the DVD release before it, is a finely tuned compendium of all things Tenenbaum. A celebration of Wes Anderson and all the other incredibly talented people that help him bring his very specific visions to life.
“Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves, you can’t let them judge you too much.” The advice of Ruth Gordon’s Maude in Hal Ashby’s cult classic Harold and Maude (6.12) rings true no matter where you are in life. It’s also a testament to Ashby himself, who simply made the films he wanted to make without caring so much about what people would think. The tale of a death-obsessed young man and an eccentric, bohemian and much older woman and their unconventional romantic bond is something that most directors, even in the early 1970s, would have run from. But Ashby was never one to run from a challenge. For his efforts, his film has become one of the most indelible experiences of its era, and certainly a story that is relevant, no matter your time, gender, class, or age. As they often do, Criterion fills Harold and Maude to the brim with stories from around the production. Did you know that there was an additional Harold “suicide” scene that involved a severed head on a platter that was never included in the final cut? I did, but only after exploring this release.
For more on The Criterion Collection, check out their official website or stop back here on Criterion Files, where Adam Charles and Landon Palmer present essays in celebration of the same films deemed significant and important in the vast landscape of cinema history.